February/March election? Think again

As we break for the Christmas/New Years holidays, Ottawa has been talking about a real possibility of an election in February and March.

I believe that the current conventional wisdom on the timing of an election is wrong.

First, no party is really in a good position for an election.

Consider the Conservatives; statistically tied with the Liberals in the latest Harris/Decima poll, the Tories aren’t riding their traditional high numbers. Some have attributed this decline to Canada’s bad press at Bali, some blame the attention that Mulroney has received. But a budget will be a bonanza of tax cuts in February, you may think, and this surely will be enough to buoy Conservative numbers. It may, but the Conservatives need the decision of at least one party to survive and three to defeat it.

That brings us to the main opposition party: the Liberals. Stephane Dion has been routinely embarrassed in the House of Commons by being forced to abstain from votes of confidence such as the throne speech and subsequent crime legislation (named a matter confidence by the PM). A staffer in Dion’s office recently told me that this pattern cannot continue at length. He’s right. The Liberals will stand in February to defeat the budget. In fact, they’ve already indicated that they intend to try force an election. This is a necessary move by Dion, as he cannot remain neutered indefinitely lest his caucus revolts. The smart play here is that he’s been first out of the gate in declaring his intentions meaning that he will not have to race Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe to the waiting cameras outside of the House doors (besides Layton and Duceppe are closer to the doors anyway). So Dion is forcing the NDP and Bloc to react to Dion whereas earlier Dion reacted to the declared intentions of those two parties instead. Dion is well ahead on this vote. This will help relieve some of the negative attention received from his chronic abstentions in this latest session in 2007. The move, however, is somewhat disingenuous as Dion knows that at least one other party will save Harper’s government (and Dion) to fight another day.

While the NDP has had better fundraising fortunes than the Liberals, this opposition party still needs to continue its strides in becoming a viable opposition in the minds of Canadians. While they will no doubt vote against the budget (and the Conservative government won’t change its legislation to accommodate them), they are unlikely thrilled about a March election. Further, the NDP standing with the Conservatives on a conservative budget would destroy much of the NDP’s credibility.

That leaves us with the Bloc, who shares a particularly important electoral interest with Stephen Harper: Quebec. The Bloc will vote for the budget because there will undoubtedly be some good items for their province. In fact, we can be quite confident in this prediction as Harper/Flaherty would be unlikely to pen a budget without extended consideration for Quebec. If they did, they would guarantee that their government would fall and that their hard-fought gains in that province would be tenuous at best and their planned gains would evaporate overnight. Expect good things for Quebec in 2008 and expect the Bloc to pass the budget; the Bloc is the only party Harper needs onside to survive.

This scenario generally satisfies all parties to some extent. The Conservatives will continue to govern while entrenching their image as tax fighters in the minds of Canadians. They will also continue to build in Quebec. The Liberals (and especially Dion) will relieve a lot of pressure internally in caucus and externally in their image as the hapless leader breaks his abstention streak. The NDP will still get to stand up to the Conservatives (the NDP gains from this scenario are the least of the four parties). Finally, the Bloc will have voted for a better budget for the people of Quebec, even if it is delivered by Conservatives. The Bloc has been concerned by the Conservative encroachment upon their nationalist strategy as it has been reconfigured by Harper as decentralization and respect for provincial jurisdiction. Duceppe would only be handing Harper voters if he defeats this government as the Prime Minister will be seen to be a better defender of Quebec’s interests.

If the Prime Minister really wants an election in March, the budget will contain a poisoned pill that is inert to Quebeckers but unacceptable for the Bloc.

Federalist tide in Quebec shifting Conservative?

Two former federal Liberals in Quebec were to do battle for the Conservative Party nomination in Laval-Les Îles but one dropped out an hour prior to the contest. In the end, Agop T. Evereklian, a former chief of staff to a Liberal cabinet minister won the nomination against another challenger.

Stating that his conversion to Conservatism was a recent occurrence, Mr. Evereklian explained that he saw no possibility of advancement within Liberal ranks, “under the present circumstances.” I appreciate Mr. Harper’s leadership, he keeps his word. He respects the democratic process. There’s transparency. Even though I’m a newcomer to Conservative ranks, I had an equal chance of winning the nomination,” he stated.

The former chief organizer for the Liberal party of Canada in Laval-Les Îles, Mr. Evereklian believes the voters want change. According to him, voters support the candidate more than they support a particular party. If a candidate offers what the people are looking for, they’ll support him,” he stated in an interview the day after his nomination.

Prior to a writ drop that is all but scheduled for February, does this indicate that the Conservative Party represents the viable vehicle for federalist votes in an upcoming election? With Mr. Dion’s leadership numbers lacking, and abysmal in his home province of Quebec, is the Quebecois political class reading the tea leaves in that province?

There will be criticism of party hopping, but as a trend, this be the first signs of an even poorer showing in Quebec for the Liberal Party during the next election.

Granted, Evereklian faces a tough fight in Laval-Les Îles, as the incumbent Raymonde Folco received 20,849 votes (39.3%) to the Bloc’s 17,537 votes (33.1%) in the last election. The Conservative candidate in the riding received 9,055 votes (17.1%).

Despite this Evereklian can bank of one obvious advantage against Folco; he used to be a senior political advisor to the Liberal.

Thoughts about the by-elections

Repeating my bit from Macleans.ca, just for the record:

“Earthquake in Quebec.

“Stephane Dion fails his first electoral test as Liberal leader as the Grits lose a safe Quebec seat.

“Stephen Harper becomes the buffer against separatism in Quebec, a role traditionally attributed to the Liberals. Where dominoes fall in Quebec, vote-rich Ontario takes notice.

“The NDP picks up only their second seat in Quebec history. Does this represent a realignment on federalism in Quebec along the lines of left and right as we saw in the Quebec provincial election?”

Further to that point, Jack Layton’s leadership is secure for at least another two years. The man from Montreal promised to deliver seats in Quebec. He delivered one, but he’s got momentum. This Mulcair fellow may however be the MP that replaces Layton as leader.

From most accounts, Stephane Dion is a nice guy. From the couple of times we’ve crossed paths and from what I’ve been able to observe, the man is a class act. However, if what is being reported in Outremont is true and there’s a movement afoot to undermine his leadership, it’s time to either bring down the hammer Chretien/Martin-style, fade away or, or… something. Unfortunately for him, with party unity still a real issue, and no easy option presents itself. Before the ballots were even counted, the truth came out last night: in the Quebec by-elections, this nice guy finished “last”.

This certainly plays well for Stephen Harper and he is ahead on two majority elements today: Dion’s failing leadership and the redefinition of federalism in Quebec. While Quebeckers are rejecting Mr. Dion’s strong centralizing vision of the federation (even though he denied this characterization of Liberal federalism last night), nationals from la belle province are embracing Mr. Harper’s respect for regional identity and power. Further indication of this can be seen in the falling Bloc numbers. As I stated above, we may see a reconfiguration of Quebec politics along left and right rather than federalist/separatist as in the past. Progressive-minded Quebeckers that voted for the left-wing Bloc are realizing a real option in Jack Layton’s NDP, while the rest are electing to choose Conservative government MPs and a new respect for Quebec’s place in a united Canada. The end-game of this in the rest of Canada is of course to cut the ballot left and right, between the policy-principled NDP and Conservative parties, wedging the Liberals out.

Decoding Harper’s Political Strategy on Afghanistan

This article by Campbell Clark of the Globe and Mail describing Defense Minister Peter MacKay’s comments on Afghanistan on CTV’s Question Period this past Sunday, left me a bit unsettled and confused.

OTTAWA — Canada has made it clear to its NATO allies that they cannot count on our troops to fight on the deadly battlefields of southern Afghanistan after February of 2009, Defence Minister Peter MacKay said yesterday.

“The signal that has been sent already is that our current configuration will end in February, 2009,” Mr. MacKay said in an interview on the CTV television program Question Period.

“Obviously the aid work and the diplomatic effort and presence will extend well beyond that. The Afghan compact itself goes until 2011,” he said. “But the way the mission is currently configured, with respect to our presence in Kandahar, there is an expiration date that has been set.”

This is a clear step forward from the Prime Minister’s earlier assertion that a consensus in Parliament would be needed to extend the mission – in it’s current state – past February 2009.

So, what is going on here? Is this what it seems? Is this surrender by the Conservative government on a key conservative principle?

The more I thought about it, the more I started to think about this announcement in a strategic way.

So, here’s my prediction:

Afghanistan is going to be the wedge issue during the next election to take place when the government puts the mission to a vote in Parliament. The vote will fail, the opposition will indicate its majority intention to withdrawal from Kandahar and the government will fall, because Harper will make it a confidence vote.

Why? Numbers.

As it stands, 50% of Canadians support the current mission in Afghanistan while 50% of Canadians do not. Harper needs about 40% of the vote to get a majority government.

MacKay’s announcement on Sunday does a few things. First of all, it indicates an utmost respect for Parliament as the mission and extension will still go to a vote (as indicated in Clark’s article). Secondly, it makes the opposition put down their guns on the Afghanistan issue for a while (continuous shelling of the mission puts it in a weak position in the forum of Canadian opinion). The opposition looks foolish when continuing to whine about the issue when the government has indicated that the mission (in the current parliamentary climate) cannot continue past February 2009. Third, it allows the government to prepare behind the scenes to sell the mission. The governing party has an advantage over the opposition parties in that it has two forums to spread its message, the House and outside of it. By indicating that the government recognizes that it is unlikely to win the Afghanistan mission vote, this disarms the opposition from consistently bringing it up in the House. Meanwhile, the government (the Conservatives) aim to sell it as an issue campaign across the country.

While the government recognizes it is unlikely to win an extension in Afghanistan, the Conservative Party will still maintain the position that an extension is in Canada’s interests and will advance that position up to the vote. There is a bit of a dichotomy here: Minister MacKay concedes the realities of the government’s minority position on the policy, while the politics of Conservatives will continue to lobby for an extension. By playing government minister, MacKay disarms the House (because the House checks the government, not the Conservative Party).

The Afghanistan extension is a perfect wedge issue for Harper. Only the Conservatives and the NDP have a clear position on the issue and only one can form government. The Liberals are bitterly divided on the issue. Ignatieff supports the mission in Afghanistan and Rae has indicated a tough on terror position in the past. Dion’s position is weak, somewhat against but certainly not for the mission. In fact, he has flip-flopped so many times in the past on the issue of Afghanistan. Of course, this plays into the Conservative narrative of weak leadership regarding Dion. Both Ignatieff and Rae are looking to topple Dion after an election, but concerning an extension as far away as 2009, this might be a wide enough window for both Rae and Ignatieff to act sooner rather than later. Harper’s strategy is to both create both a stronger NDP and a Liberal Party bitterly divided.

What other issue creates these winning conditions?

Afghanistan is a perfect issue to rally the conservative base, a reluctant group that has become angry over income trusts and only came out to vote in their champions in the wake of the biggest corruption scandal in Canadian history.

Regarding Quebec, I’m starting to think that the media’s read on Quebec voting intention regarding Afghanistan are overblown. I think that more Quebeckers would get out to vote for the mission than get out and vote against it come election day. Quebec remains a puzzle though despite Harper’s continuous attention to that province.

Speaking of which, Harper has also taken hits among the base for increased spending. Where, however, has this government spent? Childcare cheques, the military and transfer payments (fiscal imbalance) have been the shifted spending priorities of Canada’s New Government. The latter of which should help buffer some of that anti-military sentiment that the Toronto press believes that exists so pervasively in la belle province.

Back to leadership, this issue favours Harper in an electoral footing. Because he has a better control of the timing of an election, he will obviously define a ballot issue that favours his government and personal leadership. Afghanistan is a red meat issue while the environment is assorted mixed greens. Defining the election on Afghanistan favours Harper’s strong grizzle-laden leadership style, while the weaker Dion will be left sitting in vinaigrette. Harper is not going to willingly contrast himself in an election on any other issue. The only thing green that the Conservative Prime Minister hopes to talk about during the election is Dion’s leadership and that Dion “doesn’t have what it takes”, “isn’t a leader” etc.

Conservatives will also ask, “If Dion is a weak leader with an ambiguous stance on Afghanistan, is he ready to be Prime Minister?”

I believe that Conservative strategists are counting on a majority coming from NDP gains (hoping to catch that unambiguous 50% against the mission) and the bottom falling out on the Liberal party on Afghanistan and Dion’s leadership.

Liberal candidate of record is a Conservative on the books

Meet Louise Boulanger, the Liberal candidate for the Quebec by-election in the riding of Roberval–Lac-St-Jean.

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Here is a picture of Jean-Pierre Blackburn, the Conservative federal government’s minister of labour:

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Here is a picture of Denis Lebel, the Conservative candidate for the same by-election for the riding of Roberval–Lac-St-Jean:

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Here is a picture of Louise Boulanger, Denis Lebel, and Jean-Pierre Blackburn from the photo gallery of Denis Lebel’s website.

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The photo shows Lebel and Boulanger embracing with Blackburn in the foreground. Nothing too out of the ordinary, no?

There’s nothing wrong with a bit of friendly exchange between Conservative and a Liberal, of course. However, Boulanger is actually a Conservative Party member as suggested by the cover of La Presse this morning which contains the headline “ELECTION PARTIELLE: Louise Belanger, la candidate libéale dans Roberval est membre en règle du Parti… conservateur (By-election: Louise Belanger, the Liberal candidate in Roberval is technically a member of the Conservative Party)”

If true, Boulanger would have signed a form that includes the statement that she “actively support[s] the founding principles of the CPC” which are listed here.

However, Stephane Dion later “nominated” Boulanger to contest the riding of Roberval–Lac-St-Jean for the upcoming by-election, as a Liberal!.

Consider this quote from Boulanger concerning the Liberal Party having its affairs in order:

Je suis contente d’arriver à ce moment-ci parce que le ménage a été fait. Le parti est plus rigoureux sur la sélection des candidats. Notre chef Stéphane Dion est exigeant envers lui-même et exigeant envers les autres. Il désire s’entourer de gens fonceurs. Le Parti libeacute;ral est à son meilleur pour servir la population

(I am happy to have come to this moment here because the cleanup has been done. The party is more rigorous in the selection of candidates. Our leader Stephane Dion is demanding of himself and of others. He wants to be surrounded by go-getters. The Liberal Party is at its best to serve the population.)

If Boulanger is a member of the Conservative Party, that rigorous selection process must be in need of review.

Does the Liberal Party Constitution forbid members of other parties from contesting elections for the Liberal Party?

Bush coming to Canada

Dust off those bongos, young progressive agent of change! In a news release from the Prime Minister’s Office today it was announced that US President George W Bush is coming to Canada on August 20th/21st for a North American leaders summit.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper today announced that Canada will host the North American Leaders´┐Ż Summit on August 20 and 21, 2007 in Montebello, Quebec.

“We share a continent with the United States and Mexico, and our people, our economies and our security are closely interconnected,” said the Prime Minister. “This summit provides an opportunity to discuss issues of shared concern with my Mexican and United States counterparts and to promote cooperation on measures that are central to the quality of life of Canadians and all peoples in North America.”

U.S. President George Bush and Mexican President Felipe Calderon will join the Prime Minister in Montebello, Quebec. The last meeting of the leaders of Canada, the United States and Mexico took place in Cancun, Mexico on March 31, 2006.

Within the context of the summit, the leaders will review progress in their ongoing cooperation under the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America, which was established to foster collaboration for a more secure and more economically dynamic North America. In Cancun, the leaders identified five priority areas for special attention in the coming year: strengthening competitiveness in North America; North American Emergency Management; Avian and Pandemic Influenza; North American Energy Security; and North American Smart Secure Borders.

In other news, Canadian patchouli oil futures experienced heavy trading today.

Did you know that…

Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe is entitled to a $110,000 annual pension once he retires?

Why is the Bloc still running candidates for federal office? How are their dreams for sovereignty served by sitting in Ottawa, collecting a salary (and eventual pension) paid for by the Canadian taxpayer?

As the the leader of the third largest party, Duceppe even occupies a better office on the Hill than the leader of the “fourth party”: Jack Layton.

Of course, Duceppe and his party were elected by Canadians in Quebec to represent their interests in Ottawa, however, with separatism at low levels of support, and with the PQ talking about shelving discussions on sovereignty for the time being in favour of focusing more on socially democratic issues, can we start electing federal members from Quebec that can represent the real and current issues on Quebeckers?